Colin Meloy hears stories in chords and melodies: vivid and imaginative stories such as that of a mother-turned-prostitute, a gin smuggler and affectionate WWI soldiers. But probably no Decemberists song is as gripping as "Leslie Anne Levine," an account from a baby girl ghost, full of anger, misery and lovelessness.
"That E major to that C major 7 which begins that song, there's something about that jump that immediately suggested that monologue of a dead girl, a dead young girl," says band principal Meloy.
Immediately after making that statement, Meloy realizes the difficulty in understanding his certain-chord-progressions-connote-certain-tragic-tales principle.
"It's impossible to explain, but I feel like a lot of these songs are birthed out of that, out of the discovery of a melody or of a chord progression and then that unfalteringly suggests the narrative that follows," he says.
A creative-writing major while at the University of Montana, Meloy fell in love with crafting stories of anachronistic archetypes from dime-store novels; characters such as poor urchins, the Dickensian downtrodden, aristocrats and ill-fated chimney sweeps, among many others. When he dissects his songs, he can't help but sound a bit academic.
"I think they're characters that play an important role in the evolution of our attraction to the narrative of the hero myth," says Meloy. "A lot of these things that were popular in English literature in the Victorian Age, I think still resonate today."
Looking at the The Decemberists' fast-growing popularity and the nearly uniform critical acclaim in underground circles for their two full-length albums -- "Castaways and Cutouts" and "Her Majesty" -- it appears Meloy might be on to something.
"I thought that we were gonna get swept off into the corner of this weird, esoteric band singing about funny, silly weird things, and we would be disregarded because of that, and that was sort of why I was doing it -- things that I thought would alienate an audience. But in fact it's done quite the opposite," says Meloy, 28. "I think people really, really identify with these characters and in many cases have fallen in love with them. I love that, and I love that the people that are getting into the band are people that I feel like I share a mind-set with."
Arguably, people might not give a damn about Meloy's characters if it weren't for the tuneful folk orchestrations and effortless pop hooks that accompany his tales. His ability to tell a story leans toward Robyn Hitchcock, but the music recalls the beautiful arrangements of Belle and Sebastian and the pop quirkiness of Neutral Milk Hotel. Horns, glockenspiel, accordion and string arrangements provide a baroque undercurrent to the down-home feel of guitars (electric, acoustic and pedal steel), bass (electric and upright), drums and Hammond organ.
Meloy's musical aesthetic is rooted in bands he became obsessed with in sixth grade, college rock such as R.E.M, Camper Van Beethoven, HÅ¸sker DÅ¸ and the Replacements. A native of Helena, Mont., he moved to Portland, Ore., after his alt-country group Tarkio disbanded. He began playing solo before meeting like-minded local musicians and forming The Decemberists. Since self-releasing the "Five Songs" EP in 2001, the group has been invariably compared to the mythical Jeff Mangum and his band Neutral Milk Hotel. ("Five Songs" was reissued in 2002 on Hush, which also released "Castaways," the same year. Of course, Castaways was, in turn, reissued by Kill Rock Stars in 2003, just before the release of "Her Majesty," the group's latest full-length.) One critic went so far as to write that The Decemberists do a better NMH than NMH.
"Neutral Milk Hotel was a band that was held near and dear, and a lot of people, including myself, were pretty heartbroken that they're not still playing. So it's given an opportunity to sort of hail a resurrection, which we're not," Meloy says. "It's hard because I do think that `NMH's` "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" is a great record, but I don't want people to think that we're constantly trying to remake that record."
If The Decemberists were emulating NMH, Meloy would be due to begin an indefinite hibernation any day now like the elusive Mangum, who shunned public attention after the accolades started pouring in. But neither Meloy nor The Decemberists appear to be on that path.
"I'm constantly seeing this band evolve, which is great," he says. "As long as we continue evolving and aren't stagnating, we'll see how far it takes us."